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Reliable Sources

Elian Continues to Captivate the Press; Vietnam Still Haunts Journalists After 25 Years

Aired April 29, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: The Elian fallout. Is the press giving too much attention to the loudest voices and airing bogus charges? Why has the public turned thumbs down on this media circus?

And Vietnam, still haunting journalists after 25 years.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz along with Bernard Kalb.

There hasn't been much news since that dramatic day in Miami. But the press is still talking about Elian.


KURTZ (voice-over): One week after the raid that led to a reunion between Elian Gonzalez and his father, the saga remains a fixture in the headlines and all over the airwaves. Endless analysis of the raid itself, dissection of the political fallout, and the ongoing spin battle from both sides in the drama.

The Miami family lost a couple of rounds in court this week, including their request to have an independent guard appointed for Elian and to have regular access to the boy. Family members and their attorneys, who've been regular fixtures on the talk show circuit, have been laying low. Meanwhile, Elian remains with his father on Maryland's Eastern Shore, out of range of the TV cameras if not the spotlight. But in the ongoing efforts to generate positive press, Juan Miguel Gonzalez's attorney Gregory Craig released a fresh set of photographs of Elian with his father.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, David Corn, Washington editor of "The Nation," Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor of "National Review." And in Miami, Tom Fiedler, editorial page editor of "The Miami Herald."


Ramesh, "National Review" said not too long ago that the coverage of the Cuban American community in this seemingly endless story was influenced or distorted by Clinton's media shills. Now you're seriously suggesting for all of the flaws here -- we could make a very long list of media behavior here -- that the way the story is covered is strongly influenced by whether journalists like or don't like Bill Clinton?

RAMESH PONNURU, SENIOR EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Well, for whatever reason, I do think that the media has accepted the basic administration narrative of this case with it being portrayed as acting to uphold the rule of law with the law being held to be unequivocally on the administration's side. And a lot of the stories that question that I think have been underplayed or ignored altogether.

KURTZ: Bernie.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: David, you seem to think that the media can't get this story in perspective. That is to say that some of the economic or diplomatic dimensions of the story are getting lost in the emotional headlines.

For my part, I must say I'm overwhelmed by the abundance of those stories. Elian is there, of course. But there are the embroidered stories that go with it. You seem to think no.

DAVID CORN, WASHINGTON EDITOR, "THE NATION": I've said before, I think the media kind of operates on two speeds, frenzy and neglect. And given a good soap opera story, which we all like for the obvious reasons, it highlights those aspects.

I think what's behind the story in terms of the U.S. embargo on trade and travel to Cuba, even what life is really like in Cuba, I think those aspects of the story, while they get some attention, are totally overwhelmed by the images of the boy camped outside his house, of the competing family members grabbing media attention and hogging the spotlight.

And so while it's an interesting narrative, it doesn't really -- a lot of the coverage doesn't really get us beyond the narrative to think about what's lying behind it.

KURTZ: I want to return to that point. But Tom Fiedler in Miami, obviously this remains a very big story in Miami.

But nationally, let's face it, since the dramatic events of last weekend, not much has happened. There's been a court ruling. There has been some baseball players went on strike. Why do think there remains -- the media on a national level continue to give so much attention to the Elian saga?

TOM FIEDLER, EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR, "THE MIAMI HERALD": Well, let me just -- a lot of the story had been driven up until the point of the raid last week simply by the abundance of pictures. Every day, there were the photo ops of Elian coming out to play, or with Marisleysis, or on the shoulders of his great uncle and giving the V- sign. Or there are just the cameras wandering around in the crowd that was always there ready to give interviews and so forth. That basically has gone away. So the pictures that I think help drive the story to the frenzied level that it had have gone away. So what we're seeing now is a process that's unfolding.

And most of that will unfold in a courtroom, which is not a scene very conducive to a lot of pictures. And I think that it will tone things down.

It's not the case in Miami. We certainly are continuing this drama here. But I think nationally, that's what's happening.

KURTZ: Well, David Corn, on that question about the pictures, it seems to me that television rewards accessibility and pictures. And so...

CORN: Certainly.

KURTZ: ... everybody covered not only the pictures of Elian playing every day, but the family members. After the raid, you had Donato Dalrymple the fisherman, who turned out to not really be a fisherman, who rescued the boy. He's been on all kinds of cable shows, while as Juan Miguel Gonzalez's side, they're not parading Elian out for the cameras. He's not speaking. Of course, he doesn't speak English...

CORN: Right.

KURTZ: ... So doesn't his side kind of get penalized by not playing the media game?

CORN: Well, I think so. I mean, he's on -- you know, he's not on his home field in terms of language or country. And what we saw I think in the last four months, the media became the enabler for the family in which anybody who came forward with an accusation -- Juan Miguel beat his child, beat his wife, was abusive, wanted the kid to come here.

All these rumors floated up there. And they all -- the media -- gladly put the microphone and camera in front of people making that...

KURTZ: Not to mention...

CORN: ... And they weren't always evaluated.

KURTZ: ... the pictures were doctored, the kid was drugged. What...

CORN: None of which is true.

KURTZ: ... But where was the media's responsibility in not putting this out?

CORN: Well, I think the media fails if it gives people just a blank slate to make whatever charges. And it takes three or four days sometimes to catch up. We saw "Nightline" this week start going down from some of those charges and knock them down a bit, or at least give the other say. But too quickly in this news-all-the-time-in-every-way culture, you just get a TV camera if you're willing to be emotional and you have a part to play in the soap opera. (CROSSTALK)

KALB: Tom, you've got that one ingredient still working for this story, and that is suspense. We had it in the O.J. story. Would he or would he not be found guilty? We had it in the Monica story on impeachment with the president, yes or no.

We still have suspense as to how this will end. In that sense, it's a great bit of narrative. It's almost Tolstoyan in its drama. Suspense, the continuing suspense will not make this story fall away.

FIEDLER: And even when there may be an end to this where Elian returns to Cuba with his father, I think what we'll start to see, though, is a shift to the question of where does that leave the state of relations between the United States and Cuba, which will open up a different set. It won't be the dramatic piece of it.

But I think Elian will not disappear from the eyes of the world when he returns to Cardenas. I think he could be the boy in the bubble that we will continue to follow as he grows up for a long time.

KALB: But before he returns, that suspense continues. And now that his four classmates are on the scene...


KALB: ... we have five stories now.

FIEDLER: Yeah, I don't know that I see this as suspenseful anymore. There is a mood here in Miami and in the Cuban American community that the end really was reached I think when the boy was reunited with his father there.

Sure, we'll go through the procedures of the court hearing on May 11. And there may be some time after that as there are extended challenges to it.

But I do think there is more of a feeling here, anger of course still at the federal government, at Janet Reno, but also a great sense of mourning. I think people do feel that this has ended for them.

KURTZ: Ramesh Ponnuru, why does much of the coverage seem to be filtered through a kind of an ideological lens? For example, many conservatives argued that children have no standing in court. Parents should decide for them. Obviously, some seem to have deviated from that position in the Elian case.

Many liberals were horrified at any use of excessive government force but were quick to defend it here. And it seems to me the media have almost formed into those two different camps. PONNURU: Well, I mean, there's no question that for a lot of people, this does have an ideological dimension, people on both sides of the base, the question over whether -- what the ultimate outcome here should be. And the thing about parental rights, though, conservatives have never accepted the idea that there are any parental rights recognized in Cuba.

I mean, that's in the Cuban constitution. It's basically explicitly denied. So the whole parental rights question I think is sort of a red herring.

KURTZ: David, have the media been too ideological in playing up one side or another of alleged liberal or conservative hypocrisy?

CORN: When you say media, it's hard to sort of figure out who we're actually talking about...

KURTZ: Mainstream media, the networks.

CORN: ... I mean, I think the news reporters tend to do things usually right, you know, like getting both sides in. But we see a lot of columnists...

KURTZ: Columnists.

CORN: ... Yeah, we see a lot of columnists and a lot of commentary, which goes off in a lot of different directions. Even on a show like "Meet the Press" after the raid, Tom DeLay came on and said this was done without a search warrant.

KURTZ: Republican congressman from Texas.

CORN: Republican, yes. And Tim Russert didn't challenge him. He may not have had the facts. But Tom DeLay was wrong.

Now there's a question whether the search warrant was right. And some legal scholars say it might not have been the right type of search warrant.

But we see a lot of sort of facts that are really commentary or opinions being thrown out there far too fast. And people don't get the context put upon that. And a lot of that is ideologically driven.

KURTZ: OK, we have to hold it there. When we come back, more about the media's role in the Elian case.



Tom Fiedler, "The Miami Herald" acknowledged this week that your publisher Alberto Ibarwin (ph) had listened in on a conference call between Attorney General Janet Reno and three of the mediators in the case, actually took place in part of his office, hours after the raid on that fateful Saturday. He regarded this as off the record. He didn't tell anyone in the newsroom except the editor of the newspaper, who was told not to directly tell any reporters. Didn't all of this put the "Herald" in kind of an awkward spot?

FIEDLER: I suppose in the newsroom, it leaves reporters feeling a little bit frustrated to hear. But I think in the overall context of it, this meeting came about almost by serendipity I suppose. The publisher had met with two of his friends, who happen to be the negotiators there, and later Tad Foote and Aaron Podhurst, also negotiators, at the basketball game which was literally just a block away from the "Miami Herald" building.

They were concerned about having the ability to recreate a chronology, a tick-tock of what had happened. And they wanted to do that. They wanted to get together somewhere where they could sit down quietly.

The publisher said, "Look, my office is close. Let's do it there." And that's what happened.

The phone call to the attorney general came when one of the four negotiators, Aaron Podhurst, checked his phone messages, found out that Ms. Reno had called him. He called from the publisher's office...

KURTZ: Right.

FIEDLER: ... and she gave permission...

KURTZ: She did indeed.

FIEDLER: ... for the (INAUDIBLE).

KURTZ: But fairly ordinarily, Tom, does this give the impression that the "Herald" is not just covering the story but in some ways part of the story?

FIEDLER: It may give the impression to some there. But again, if you look at Mr. Ibarwin here, he not only has journalistic credentials as the publisher. But he came into this business through the law. He was the attorney for several newspapers before coming to "The Miami Herald..."

KURTZ: Sure.

FIEDLER: ... He knows scrupulously what the meaning is of "off the record." And he also knows his responsibility to the newsroom.

KALB: Well, Tom, doesn't...

FIEDLER: ... I think he met that. Yeah.

KALB: ... Yeah, doesn't a publisher -- we as reporters have pledged and agreed and lived up to off the record or background, et cetera. FIEDLER: Sure.

KALB: Doesn't the publisher have that same right? It seems to me a little bit of a mountain is made of this story. FIEDLER: I think you're absolutely right. He was in a situation where he was able to receive information off the record. He had to, like the reporter would be, respectful of that.

But I think he also, recognizing again that he's in the journalism business, that he also made sure that the newsroom had the opportunity to ask the questions that hopefully would have divulged the information that he received. And ultimately, that's really -- it really came out. I don't think there were any secrets that were kept from reporters that he learned in the room... KURTZ: OK...

FIEDLER: ... even within hours.

KURTZ: ... Let me turn now to Ramesh, Tom, we're running a little short on time. Sixty-six percent of the public in a CNN-Gallup poll say they disapprove of the media coverage on the Elian Gonzalez case. Do you think that's in part because we in this position are seen as exploiting, milking the story, in showing the pictures of him playing day after day? This is, after all, a 6-year-old boy.

PONNURU: I think that's part of it. I think it's also partly boredom with the same story going on and on. And but the thing that makes me wonder if people are watching all this coverage, right?

KURTZ: Right. Stop me before I watch again?

PONNURU: I mean, if people are so sick of it, why are they -- right, exactly.

KALB: This is a luxury. You know, when you pull -- do you like this story? I'm fed up with it. I'm part of the 66 percent.

And then you take a look at what the ratings are, particularly on the 24-hour cables, they are constantly -- Elian has given them all a spike. So there is the same kind of pollster hypocrisy at work on this story as there was on O.J. and there was on Monica.

CORN: (INAUDIBLE) watching. I don't think they liked the frenzied circus atmosphere. I think the Diane Sawyer interview, which we didn't talk much about, was a big mistake. And then the hostage video, and people really got the sense that this boy was being used as a pawn...

KALB: David, your mistake...

CORN: ... as a prop. But they still wanted to watch.

KALB: ... Listen, what you're calling a mistake is great for ratings. The 66 are in on this doubt. (CROSSTALK)

KALB: ... about 66 percent disapprove. And what are the percentage that approve by tuning in?

KURTZ: I think there may be -- a message here may be not just that it's the usual wretched excess by the media but the way the coverage has in the view of many people exploited the tragedy of a 6- year-old boy who lost his mother.

CORN: And there's a sense too I think because it did go on long, and people wanted the boy, mostly wanted the boy to be back with his dad. And they just wanted to see it over.

And the coverage they watched. But it still indicated to them that the circus was going on, and it's something easy for them to attack.

KURTZ: David Corn, last word. Ramesh Ponnuru, Tom Fiedler in Miami, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, when we come back, we'll introduce you to the world's first virtual newscaster in our "Media Roundup."

And later, Bernie's "Back Page," the media and Vietnam 25 years after the fall of Saigon.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Time for our "Media Roundup." We begin with a suddenly famous correspondent.



LEONARDO DICAPRIO, ACTOR: Mr. President, I want to thank you very much for your time.


KURTZ (voice-over): Remember all the fuss about Leonardo DiCaprio's trip to the White House. ABC News has heavily criticized for using a Hollywood star to interview the president. ABC News President David Westin first denied but later acknowledged that a sit- down interview had been planned in advance.

Well, last weekend, DiCaprio's chat with the commander in chief finally turned up in an ABC Earth Day special.


DICAPRIO: As you know, I'm neither a politician nor journalist, but being given the opportunity to sit down with you here and talk about an issue like global warming. It was an opportunity as a concerned citizen that I couldn't pass up. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: But the original interview, which lasted about 20 minutes, was cut down to a mere two minutes and 40 seconds. And to make matters worse for ABC, the program wasn't exactly a titanic success in the ratings coming in last against the other major network shows.

Dan Savage's article "Stalking Gary Bauer" caused an uproar in January when it appeared in the online magazine "Salon," describing how Savage infiltrated Bauer's presidential campaign and tried to infect the candidate with the flu by licking doorknobs at his campaign headquarters.

Savage later suggested that at least part of the story was a joke. But Iowa officials aren't laughing. What's really gotten Savage in hot water is that while he lives in Seattle, he actually voted in the Iowa caucuses. The "Des Moines Register" reported this week that Savage will be charged with two counts of voter fraud and could face up to six years in jail.

ANANOVA, VIRTUAL NEWSCASTER: This morning, I am keeping a close watch on the London stock market.

KURTZ: Finally, meet Ananova, the world's first virtual newscaster, unveiled this past week by Britain's domestic wire service, the Press Association.

ANANOVA: I can't tell you how much I've looked forward to this moment. I've been locked in a room for 12 months with nothing but geeks and techies for company.

KURTZ: Now that Ananova is on the Internet, her creators hope that she will make a lot of friends in the world of news consumers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's important that Ananova become someone who you warm to and who you trust.

KURTZ: Ananova's computer scans incoming stories and creates syllables and inflection.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The producers press that button and imbeds into the text some emotions and some actions.

KURTZ: And is Ananova gunning to replace the big guys, Dan, Tom, Bernie? Not just yet, but give her some time.


KURTZ: When we return, Bernie's "Back Page" remembering Vietnam.


KURTZ: Time now for the "Back Page." Bernie.

KALB: Finally, finally, finally, a story comes along that breaks the media's obsession with Elian, an old story in fact, but one that 25 years later still haunts America. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KALB (voice-over): Vietnam, April 30, 1975: An obituary of a picture, a picture that says it all, America humiliated fleeing from a rooftop in downtown Saigon, 58,000 Americans killed in the war. And here, U.S. troops getting kicked out of Vietnam. To quote President Ford, "The truth could not be spin." The president himself that day fleeing from reporters trying to get a comment about the first war America lost.

Year after year, a quarter of a century of April 30ths, there have been variations of this headline in the "Philadelphia Inquirer" the other day: "How the War Still Weighs on Hearts and Minds." Twenty-five years later, Vietnam is back on the calendar, stories everywhere in the newspapers, photos that those of a certain age still remember.

The nightly newses, the weeklies. Elian got the cover of "Newsweek." But "The Last Days of Saigon" got 14 pages inside.

Among the Americans back in Vietnam for the occasion, one of the most famous veterans of the war, this time a tourist. His first trip to Hanoi in 1967, spending five-and-a-half years as a POW.

All of this was described as the first living room war brought home in deadly color. In the beginning, the media mostly supported U.S. policy. But then as the war dragged on, a gap opened up between the media and the military, the official light-at-the-end-of-the- tunnel optimism being challenged by skeptical dispatches by reporters in the field and producing what ultimately was called the credibility gap.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic if unsatisfactory conclusion.


KALB: One of these top secret documents just declassified stresses the importance of absolute honesty and objectivity in all reporting but concedes that U.S. official reports tended for a long time to be excessively optimistic. This document is titled "Lessons of Vietnam," composed a few days after the war ended from then- Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to President Ford.

Looking back at it all, even a senior historian with the U.S. Army Center of Military History, William Hammond, disputes the view of those in the military that the media lost the war by swaying public opinion. Rather, it was flawed policy and mounting casualties.

And there's this vivid declassified document recording America's last seconds in the war: "Lady A09 off with total of 24 pax including the ambassador." Two decades later, then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara offered this explanation for those immortalized on this wall: "We were wrong, terribly wrong."

These last few days have seen a rush of memoirs, by Kissinger among others, writing about the long shadow of Vietnam, and by various reporters, including this one about what it was like covering the war.


KALB: For those of us who were there, a special camaraderie developed among reporters. Vietnam was shrapnel in our hearts, inoperable, unforgettable. Twenty-five years later, it still feels that way.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next time for another critical look at the media.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next. Mark Shields has a preview.

MARK SHIELDS, "CAPITAL GANG": Howard, we'll look at strained relations between John McCain and George W. Bush, an unexpected development in New York State, and the politics of Elian Gonzalez. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon joins the gang for this and much more right here next on CNN.



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